xPablo Larrain's Tony Manero nearly joined David Bowie in the small library of films I have walked out of.
Tony Manero, Sydney Film Festival
I think I have walked out of one film in 30 years of film-going. I think it was Nicolas Roeg's The Man Who Fell To Earth, which was mostly a star vehicle for David Bowie. It wasn't a poor film (well, how would I know, because I walked out about a third of the way through), it was just so overwhelmingly depressing.
Pablo Larrain's Tony Manero nearly joined David Bowie in the small library of films I have walked out of. And for the same reason: it's not a poor film - indeed, on the contrary, it is a stunning character study of a desperate man and quite a political treatise - but it is very depressing. And I mean really depressing.
Raul (played by Alfredo Castro) is an out-of-work 50-something in Santiago, Chile, at the depths of the Pinochet years (1977-78). Santiago is all packs of roaming dogs, dying old cars, and people fighting over purloined television seats and watches. The police and the army are firmly in charge. And they execute people for the most minor of transgressions (carrying a handful of anti-Pinochet posters, for example).
Raul seems largely oblivious to all this. He is obsessed by the 1976 film Saturday Night Fever. More specifically, he is obsessed by Tony Manero, the character played by John Travolta. He yearns to play Manero on a local television talent show (the film opens with Raul mistakenly turning up for the show a week early, which was the Chuck Norris week). Indeed, Raul gets to the television show eventually, and pulls off the 'Brooklyn Hustle' for the studio crowd.
The real story though unfolds alongside the indulgence of Raul's fascination with Saturday Night Fever. The central narrative is the story of randomness - the randomness of violence, death, and oppression under extreme authoritarianism. It's not only the police and army who deal out killings and beatings ... Raul is so immersed in the world Pinochet and his regime have created, he assaults and kills with a casual blamelessness that can be achieved only in a society where the government makes killing a way of life.
Other directors have worked the same seam recently: Florian Henchel von Donnersmarch's The Lives of Others, and Marcelo Pineyro's Kamchatka are also studies of people living under authoritarianism. But both of those films allow something which Larrain isn't willing to provide his audience: redemption. Neither Raul nor anyone else in this film makes that leap. That is probably why it is such a resoundingly depressing film. Nonetheless, if you have a strong stomach, Tony Manero is a monument to the corruption that riddles extreme authoritarianism and to the oppression which it visits upon ordinary people.
Tony Manero: Sydney Film Festival
June 8 & 12
Runtime: 97 min
Country: Chile | Brazil
Language: Spanish | English
Sound Mix: Dolby Digital
Company: Fabula Productions